Music Without Boundaries

Conservatory Students Share Their Love of Music with Panamanian Musicians

by Linda Shockley


Musical coachings under banana trees. Riding to rehearsals in the "pollo-mobile." Performing in the ruins of Old Panama City. These are just a few of the highlights from the Conservatory's ninth annual Panama Project.

"Perhaps you have to experience it firsthand to understand how much these young musicians look forward to our return each January," says violinist Rodica Filipoi, a conservatory senior, discussing her second winter-term trip to Panama.

The trip also marked the second visit for junior flutist Katayoon Hodjati. "It was great to go back and stay with the same host family and work with many of the same musicians I worked with last year. It's gratifying to work with people who are so excited about music. They spent all their free time asking questions and hanging out with us. They wanted copies of every piece of music we had, even if it was something from Super Mario Bros."

Filipoi and Hodjati were two of 11 Conservatory students who traveled to Panama accompanied by Timothy Weiss, associate professor of wind conducting, for the ninth annual Panama Project, a cultural exchange between Conservatory students and more than 130 Panamanian musicians aged 6 to 26.

"The Panamanian students are talented," says Weiss. "What holds them back is not a lack of ability but a lack of resources: instruments, music and facilities. So this experience is very important to them and they arrive for camp prepared, focused, and motivated. I think this experience helps our students realize how lucky they are for all the resources that have been available to them through their training."

The Conservatory works closely with the National Concert Association in Panama, a nonprofit organization that each year provides vital project coordination (scheduling, room and board, performance venues, ground transportation, and partial funding). During this year's two-week stay, Oberlin students worked with two youth orchestras and offered chamber-music and orchestral coachings, private lessons, master classes, and performances.

conservatory students "It was quite interesting to watch as the Oberlin group coalesced over the two-week stretch," notes Weiss. "As faculty for the camp, the students, in essence, became my peers as we held weekly meetings and made group decisions. They were very professional.

"You know, we teach because we hope to show that music enriches lives. There are a number of students in this Panamanian orchestra who wish to pursue a music career. I hope working with Oberlin students will provide the spark, the inspiration, and the additional skills to help them achieve that goal."

The group spent one week at a music camp in Panama City - IXV Campamento Musical Juventil, held at the Catholic University - where mornings were devoted to a music-prep program with children under 12 years of age; afternoons were dedicated to chamber and orchestral work with older students. For the second week, the group traveled two hours by bus from Panama City to a convent in the more remote mountain village of El Valle.

Group members were impressed by the warm receptions they received at every stop."There's an amazing feeling of appreciation," recalls Filipoi. "For example, in Panama City, many families donated time, food, transportation and lodging for our visit. In El Valle, the man who drives the chicken truck - we called it the Pollo-mobile - donated his time, his driving, and his truck to get us to rehearsals each day. We all crammed into the back of the chicken truck with our instruments tucked under our feet and sang as we went to rehearsals."

Besides teaching and coaching - and sight seeing - the students offered nine performances together and in combination with the Panamanian orchestra and chamber ensembles. Concert venues included schools, a university, churches, and the Ruinas de Panama Viejo, the beautiful stone ruins of Old Panama City. Audiences ranged from urban sophisticates to villagers who experienced their first live classical music concert.

"It's almost overwhelming to listen as a village church bell rings to signal the beginning of a concert and then watch as people immediately come outdoors and head down the streets to attend," says Filipoi. "Many of these people had never seen instruments like ours. Many had never heard classical music performed live. There's a wonderful feeling of satisfaction in contributing to a larger musical world. I feel like I've done something important in sharing something that I love: music. As a bonus, I've made lasting friendships."